Sonos Beam (Gen 2) review: What is this incredible soundbar wizardry?

The newest Sonos Beam isn’t just the best Atmos soundbar for budget-conscious buyers, it even scratches the itch for home theater nerds

Sonos Beam Gen 2 (2021) review: Dolby Atmos sound. $450 price. Terrific sound.
Samuel Polay / Input

The new Sonos Beam (Gen 2) is one of the most impressive soundbars I’ve ever used.

If you can’t be bothered to do research, just want a simple-to-use, great-sounding Dolby Atmos soundbar to compliment your 4K HDR TV, and have a budget that will accommodate its $449 price tag, you should buy the new Beam right now. You won’t find anything this good close to this price.

Here’s something I never thought I’d say when I started testing the Beam (Gen 2) though: If you spend the extra money to add rear speakers, $400 more for a total of $850, the new Beam transforms from a great Atmos bar for most people, into a wholly immersive system that convinced me, a day-one owner of Sonos’ high-end Arc soundbar, that it’s the new King of Atmos. All for $50 less than the Sonos Arc by itself, which costs $900 now thanks to a supply chain spurred price increase.

The second-gen Beam isn’t perfect. It comes with all the usual caveats you need to mention with any Sonos speaker. But, for most people in most spaces who want to have more immersive sound in their living room for under $500 or even under $1,000, the updated Sonos Beam should be first and last on their list.

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The upgrades

The original Sonos Beam released in 2018 for $399. That soundbar was what I’d call the perfect “grandma” device. It was small, well-designed, and made stereo and traditional surround audio sound good enough in an appropriately sized room. Most importantly, it was reliable enough that you could confidently buy one for a less-than-savvy family member, set it up for them, and not have to worry about constant support calls afterward. It represented a meaningful step up from the popular stereo soundbars of the time, but never really scratched the itch for home theater nerds, even if you did drop the extra $1,100 needed to build a 5.1 system around it. The new Beam, just called “Beam (Gen 2),” isn’t just a better mainstream soundbar now; it can stand toe-to-toe with the most expensive soundbars on the market today. The little Beam is ready for the big leagues.

The most significant change with the second-gen Beam is the chipset powering it — listed as a “1.4Ghz Quad Core A-53” processor on Sonos’ website. While this is the same spec found on the page for the Arc, Sonos would not confirm this is the same chip. Regardless, the Beam is clearly playing with a lot more horsepower that aids its second big upgrade: its processing algorithms. The CPU and the new processing algorithms it enables are entirely why the new Beam sounds so much better.

It can stand toe-to-toe with the most expensive soundbars.

Sonos has also swapped out the fabric cover of the original for a perforated plastic shell like the one found on the Arc. This gives the Beam more weight than its predecessor and exudes a more premium look sitting on my media console. Most of the actual interior is unchanged, including all of the audio components. The Beam still sports a single tweeter, four woofers, and three passive radiators.

Additionally, Sonos has upgraded the single HDMI ARC port to a more advanced eARC port to have full compatibility with newer TVs. This is one of the Beam’s first notable downsides. Despite more premium Atmos soundbar competitors featuring full HDMI 2.1 passthrough ports, Sonos is sticking to their minimalist port approach that forces owners to sacrifice one of their HDMI ports in order to use their home theater products. Lack of a passthrough port also means that if you have an older smart TV that doesn’t work with Dolby Atmos at all, you have no way to take full advantage of the Beam. If you have a non-Atmos TV, I did find the Beam delivers terrific virtualized 5.1 surround sound in my testing and Sonos confirms that the Beam’s performance handling 5.1 signals has also been upgraded alongside the addition of Atmos. Point being, if you do want to take full advantage of the new Beam, you need to make sure your TV supports Atmos in some way.

How to get great Dolby Atmos

The highest-end Dolby Atmos soundbars, including the Sonos Arc, rely on upward-firing and side drivers to create the immersive effect Atmos is known for by bouncing sound off your ceiling and walls. They sound great in an ideal room, one that is closed off and doesn’t have terribly high ceilings, but they tend to fall apart if your listening area doesn’t meet those conditions.

The problem is that most people don’t watch TV in rooms like this. Lots of people live in studio and one bedroom apartments, where their TV is stored in a corner and a soundbar wouldn’t be able to effectively bounce sound around the entire space due to it being far away from one or more of the walls. If you live in a house, there’s a chance your living room doesn’t have doors to close to prevent sound from escaping, or maybe you have vaulted ceilings that effectively knee-cap analog height speakers altogether. Most people don’t live in perfect conditions, or have the privilege of living in spaces with a spare room to dedicate to a home theater. Take my word as someone who’s experienced a Sonos Arc working in both ideal and less than ideal rooms.

The Beam 2 (Gen 2) sounds way better than it has any business sounding.Samuel Polay / Input

This is why lots of soundbars in the budget space don’t bother with upward-firing drivers at all and instead use processing to virtualize the effect on forward-firing drivers. This also saves a lot of money, which is why most virtual Atmos bars are also budget Atmos bars. These soundbars that fake the Atmos effect don’t sound as good as ones with analog height speakers but they’ve been the only option so far for people who don’t have a perfect viewing room in their home.

Part of the reason I’m not specifying the number of channels the Beam creates is because Sonos wouldn’t tell me. In fact, Sonos’ head of home theater, Scott Fink, told me the company is very deliberately trying to de-emphasize channel counts with their products now. Fink says this is because Beam and Arc don’t really throw channel information away when the soundbars receive a signal. If the Beam receives a 7.1 signal from a Blu-ray player, or a 5.1.2 Atmos signal from Netflix, it encodes all that information across the virtual arrays it’s creating into the entire sound field. Sonos claims this provides a clearer experience on all of their soundbars and makes any type of audio more immersive since they aren’t isolating channel signals to one side of a system exclusively. This is the case for both Beam and Arc, with the difference between the two being the audio components inside.

Mega sound

Even though soundbars that create a virtual Atmos effect instead of using physical height speakers are nothing new, the way Sonos is delivering virtual Atmos blows every other implementation I’ve seen out of the water. Fink told me he hopes that the way Sonos is executing processing on the new Beam will help change assumptions about virtualized Atmos and those hopes are definitely well-founded. The Beam is tiny but had no trouble filling my room with rich and detailed sound.

My testing, mostly using scenes from Blade Runner 2049 along with other Atmos and 5.1 content, primarily focused on two configurations of the Beam: how it performed by itself and how it performed with the aid of dedicated rear speakers.

Out of the box, in my theater room with good acoustics, I was floored by the new Beam. Sound effects were clear and well separated, and the height effects were more than impressive. This is before I applied Trueplay, Sonos’ calibration program within its mobile app that measures a room’s acoustics using the microphones on an iPhone.

I was floored by the new Beam.

When I did apply Trueplay, I wouldn’t say the Beam’s solo performance was transformed, but object placement and separation did become more solid. Trueplay is going to be especially key for Beam owners who want to place their soundbars in a more open space. When a soundbar is producing surround and height effects that are entirely virtualized, it’s key that it knows exactly what the space it’s playing in sounds like to improve that virtual field.

I asked Sonos what the best way to do Trueplay in an open space was. They said that in order to get the best experience, do your Trueplay measurements in your viewing area instead of the entire physical room if that area is shared with something like a kitchen (i.e, all of your chairs, sofas, and of course the space around your TV itself).

Sonos’ long-running failure to support TruePlay on any Android phone, even popular phones from Samsung, particularly stings if you’re a prospective Beam customer with an Android phone. If you don’t have access to an iPhone, you just have to hope that the Beam’s default sound profile will suit your listening area. Fink told me that the default tuning for Beam out of the box was based on beta testing in lots of different room types, so Sonos believes it will provide a good experience for lots of different room geometries if you can’t tune it, but I’d still want to have that bespoke tuning over the default if I was in an acoustically challenged space. It’s still unacceptable that Sonos’ best advice to Android users who want Trueplay tuning is “ask a friend with an iPhone.”

When I pressed Sonos about the state of Trueplay with regards to the Beam I couldn’t get anything besides their usual responses about the variance in microphones used by Android phones. Fink did say that the roadmap for Trueplay is “robust” but wouldn’t hint as to what that meant. I’m sure something like the Beam performing Trueplay calibration using its own internal microphones like Sonos’ portable speakers can is possible, but until Sonos confirms it’s coming you should assume it won’t and buy the Beam for what it is now.

Alone, the Sonos Beam (Gen 2) sounds great. But with rear speakers connected, it sounds phenomenal.Samuel Polay / Input

The Beam’s biggest shortcoming when it’s working alone is producing rear surround effects. The best way I can describe the sound field this thing makes is like standing right in front of an acoustic waterfall. It occupies most of what you’re hearing in front, above, and directly beside you, but doesn’t really fill up the space behind all the way. My chairs are in the middle of my TV room, so I have plenty of space behind me for rear effects to reflect off. However, if your seating area is pushed against a wall right in front of your TV, a soundbar that fills the whole space in front of it is exactly what you’re looking for, and the Beam excels at doing this.

A shortcoming the Arc and Beam share is they each sport a bass response that’s well suited for movies, but leaves a bit to be desired for larger spaces or dedicated music listening. The Arc definitely is better at bass, but I wouldn’t say it’s strong enough to satisfy larger rooms or HiFi music enthusiasts. This is where the Sonos ecosystem’s toughest pill to swallow enters the picture, the $749 Sonos Sub. The fact the only subwoofer compatible with the Beam or Arc costs $300 more than the Beam is dumbfounding. Sonos wouldn’t comment on whether they have other subwoofer solutions in the works but I really hope they do. A more affordable and less powerful subwoofer geared more to home theater use cases would be the perfect complement to the Beam or the Arc. The current Sub has been pulling double duty as a subwoofer that is terrific for HiFi music listening but overpowered for a home theater for far too long.

My tests confirmed that an Arc still bests a Beam in ideal conditions despite the Beam’s impressive performance. The Arc’s superior hardware and analog height speakers do the best job at getting sounds behind you without any help, and does a better job of separating sound effects in busier scenes. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the Arc is double the price of the Beam and has way more hardware packed inside, but its reliance on the height drivers being in the right space makes it a less flexible product than the Beam. The Beam did impress me enough that I wanted to compare the two systems head to head in a fairer fight by pairing it with two rear speakers.

While any two of the same Sonos speakers, like the One SL, can be used as rears, I used two Ikea Symfonisk Picture Frame speakers for this test. My goal was to give the Beam as equal footing with the Arc as possible. I felt this was the most important setup to test because a Beam with two rears, which I’ll call the surround-Beam, costs $850, much closer to the $900 a single Arc commands.

There’s no better way to say this but, in this setup, the surround-Beam blew the Arc out of the water. When finally given real rear speakers to work with, nearly all of the Beam’s shortcomings evaporate. Its somewhat subpar bass response is richer thanks to the aid of the additional woofers in the rears, surround effects completely enveloped me, and the virtual height array fills up even more of the ceiling to completely surpass the lone Arc in terms of immersion. Clarity, separation, and dialog are all improved as well. I confirmed this by doing blind tests with my very patient girlfriend, and her untrained ear couldn’t pick out that the height effects from this Beam configuration were produced with software.

The Sonos Beam (Gen 2) has an eARC HDMI port.Samuel Polay / Input

To my trained ear, the Arc did still win out in some areas, and still wins out in a head-to-head comparison when it's in a surround setup. The Arc does an overall better job of separating effects and is the all-around winner on clarity, but I really had to try and find those differences when comparing the two. I don’t think anybody will be able to pick out the surround-Beam’s shortcomings unless they’re doing a head-to-head test. When you’re sitting back and enjoying your favorite movie on this setup, your ears stop nitpicking.

I would be lying if I wasn’t now curious to see what more the Arc could do if Sonos does introduce a “Virtual Atmos” mode down the line to make it less reliant on the height drivers in more challenging rooms. I really want to see what its superior components can do when they turn the virtualization up to 11. (Fink was mum on if this was a possibility..)

You might say that it’s unfair to not go into detail about a head-to-head comparison with both soundbars using surround configurations, but you already know the answer to that. I also don’t think it’s worth comparing a $850 setup to a $1,300 one. Yes, the Arc still wins out in that contest, creating the best full Atmos effect, but it needs to crack the $1,000 mark to take that win and only when placed in the right room. The reason the Beam wins out, and takes the title for the best all-around Atmos experience is value and flexibility. The surround-Beam provides a wholly immersive experience for less money than the Arc needs to do the same, and its specific implementation of Atmos will work better in more rooms. If I was starting my home theater from scratch today, I would only consider a Beam with surround speakers — it’s that good.

New king

The Beam (Gen 2) by itself is the perfect option for people with a $500 soundbar budget who want a simple setup to deliver Dolby Atmos. If you don’t want to bother with plugging in dedicated rear speakers, don’t worry about it. You will be very happy with how the second-gen Beam performs by itself.

If you are someone who cares about having the best Atmos setup possible under $1,000, the Beam does an objectively better job at doing that with rear speakers helping it than a lone Sonos Arc. All for $50 less while giving you the most flexibility on room placement at the same time. The only way I see the Arc reclaiming its crown is if Sonos brings the Beam’s virtualization algorithms up to it. Then, its superior hardware should make the difference while no longer limiting its performance based on room geometry.

The home-Atmos game has been changed.

Unless you’re ready to drop hundreds of dollars more and have a room for your home theater that meets every condition needed to provide a good Atmos experience, this is the best Atmos system on the market. If that isn’t you, you shouldn’t bother looking at anything other than the surround configuration of the Beam. This includes not just a full Arc system with rears and a subwoofer, but even custom Atmos AV installations that cost thousands more. The home-Atmos game has been changed.